OP-ED | For the United States, a second race to the moon is a second-rate goal

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Once again, U.S. policy for human spaceflight is under debate. As reported by SpaceNews, the House Science Committee is pushing a policy more directed to Mars and away from commercial participation.  That is sensible if you believe that the purpose of human spaceflight is exploration and that its rationale is geopolitical. That has been true for all of the Space Age, and I believe it will remain so.

Commercial development of space certainly does not need humans in space. In fact, it would be a diversion for commercial interests to have to deal with humans. Not even the U.S. Defense Department has an interest in human spaceflight. Putative lunar or asteroid commercial goals don’t need humans — robots will mine asteroids or build lunar bases (if anyone does). Tourism is a commercial goal that needs humans (although in the days of self-driving cars, buses and airplanes, maybe less so). But tourism should not be the basis of government-funded space development, unless the trend toward serving only the wealthy continues unabated.

The human spaceflight programs of China, India and possibly Russia have a geopolitical rationale driven by national prestige and regional leadership. Smaller countries with nascent human programs likewise driven by national prestige are stepping forward as partners reluctant to be left out.

This leaves the United States with two choices: compete with developing nations in a new race to the moon, one it could possibly lose; or do what President John F. Kennedy did after the U.S. lost the early rounds of the space race to the Soviet Union — set a more distant goal. In 1962, the stretch goal was the moon. Today, it should be Mars.

Diverting our human spaceflight program to support hypothetical commercial lunar interests is not sustainable; it is far too expensive and does not benefit commercial goals.  The commercial industry, including NewSpace ventures, has one other interest — being a government contractor. It is a matter of semantics whether to call that “commercial” or not.  If the policy is to stimulate a commercial industry, relevant robotic programs would be the better approach.

The other driving factor is domestic politics. The House Science Committee position likely presages what will be national policy if there is a new U.S. president next year. Since none of the Democratic candidates seem to have a civil space agenda, they will likely be highly influenced by the positions Democrats in the House and Senate are currently staking out. That the House Science Committee is interested in Mars fits the geopolitical purposes of human spaceflight. NASA’s current plan for putting more footprints on the moon does not.

Only two positive initiatives for human spaceflight have politically succeeded in the United States. President Kennedy’s determination to beat the Soviet Union to the moon was the first. The second was President Bill Clinton’s decision to build an International Space Station with Russia. (I don’t count President Richard Nixon’s decision to develop the space shuttle as positive since it was a consolation prize for rejecting the Mars and space station recommendations).

Will the United States accomplish a third politically successful human spaceflight initiative? None of the back-to-the-moon initiatives of the past 30 years have made it and all (including the current one) have lacked popular interest.

The only new geopolitical driver I can imagine is international cooperation. Sadly, not under the current White House administration, but perhaps under the next one. If so, the House Science Committee bill might be a good starting point

Louis Friedman is co-founder and executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society.